Fall Harvest Veggies
Beans, squash and okra can be enjoyed throughout the fall. Photo courtesy of W. Atlee Burpee & Company
Todays homeowner typically thinks of bright red tomatoes, shiny green peppers and straight, smooth cucumbers as vegetables to grow in the home garden. For some, its an anxiously awaited ritual. The smart vegetable gardener waits until mid-April to plant (avoiding early spring frost). He weeds, waters, mulches and inspects his plants daily for critters and disease. By June and into July, hes proudly serving the family and sharing with neighbors the bounty harvested throughout the summer. By Labor Day, hes packed up the tomato cages and put away the garden stakes until next spring.
But did you know tending your own vegetable garden doesnt have to be a summer-only pastime? You can continue to grow many of the same warm-season vegetables during the fall, up until the first frost. Also, many other kinds of vegetables thrive in the cooler fall months, hence their name cool-season vegetables. Traditional fall vegetables include beets, broccoli, lettuce, beans and cauliflower.
Besides the obvious benefit of having fresh produce to enjoy, fall vegetable gardening has many advantages. With the onset of cooler weather, disease and bug problems damaging the plants are minimized (as well as less mosquito bites for you!). Fall usually brings rain, so your garden has less need for supplemental watering. Weeds are not quite as prevalent in the fall, but still need to be controlled.
If you decide to tackle your first vegetable bed this fall, as with any area youre first planting, be sure to prepare and improve the soil. Have it tested to determine what type of soil you have and what amendments are necessary.
In Atlanta, clay soil must be amended to improve drainage and increase moisture retention. A mixture of organic material (such as compost) and granite sand tilled in with the existing clay will make a dramatic difference and increase your chances of successful gardening. By tilling and improving the soil, youll increase aeration and begin the process of turning clay into good, viable soil. Fertilizer and lime should be incorporated at this time also, according to soil test recommendations. If you are replanting, be sure to add composted material to the area to replenish the nutrients in the soil.
Extending the summer-vegetable growing season
If youd like to be the envy of the neighborhood with an abundant crop of juicy, ripe tomatoes and summer squash on the vine well into October, plant a second crop now. The key to successfully lengthening the growing season for summer plants such as tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and peppers is to plant them early enough so that the vegetables will be ready to harvest before the first frost.
Also, if cooler weather arrives sooner than expected, vegetables will take longer to mature, so take this into consideration and dont cut it too close when calculating planting dates.
Plant “summer’ veggies, such as okra, early so that they will be ready to harvest before the first frost. Photo courtesy of W. Atlee Burpee and Co.
How do you know when to plant? The key is to determine the estimated first frost date, find out how many days it takes for a seed or seedling transplant to reach maturity, grab a calendar and count backwards. Subtract an additional two weeks for these frost-sensitive warm-weather vegetables. The date you get to is when you should plant.
Heres how it works. In metro Atlanta, the estimated (average) first frost date is November 15. Youd like to plant another crop of cucumbers, and know that it takes them between 50 and 65 days to mature. Consult your calendar, and starting on November 15, count back 65 days and that brings you to September 11. Remember that this frost date is only an estimate, and that early November frosts are not out of the ordinary in our region. To be sure you miss the first frost, count back two more weeksand plant on or before August 28.
Using this counting back method will give you the absolute latest time that you can plant and expect a mature harvest before cold weather. You can certainly plant your second crop of summer veggies a few weeks earlier than the calculated date, and pick them earlier in the fall.
The sidebar on Page 119 lists vegetables that mature soon enough to allow a second planting in mid-summer. Check the varieties of each vegetable for maturity dates and choose earlier maturing types to ensure harvest before cold weather arrives.
Youll most likely fare well if you plant a few days to a week after the final date listed, but planting any later is risky because the chance of early, cool weather increases. Check the weather reports as late October and November arrive, and if frost is forecast, harvest these veggies for the last time until next year.
Vegetables for cool weather
Beets, turnips and parsnips probably make you think of Thanksgiving and a roaring fireplace. Some vegetables absolutely thrive in cooler weather. Growing these late-season crops is a great way of extending your gardening experience, not to mention bringing terrific tasting vegetables to your table.
The planting dates will varysome fall vegetables cannot withstand the late summer heat, while others can be started while the temperature is still hot. Traditional cool-weather veggies such as beets, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach and lettuces can withstand some cold, and their flavor is actually enhanced after frost. While they cannot make it through the entire winter, they dont have to be plucked from the garden as soon as frost arrives. Some of these vegetables can be planted again in late winter, for an early spring harvest.
There are other kinds of vegetables that will actually survive in the garden at below-freezing temperatures. Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, collards, garlic, kale, mustard, onion, Irish potatoes, radish, spinach and turnips suffer no ill effects when temperatures dip to 24 degrees. See the sidebar on Page 119 for more details on cool-weather veggies.
What about the No. 1 symbol of fallthe pumpkin? Once October rolls around, pumpkins are everywhereunfortunately, its too late to plant them. Pumpkins, whether the delightful mini Jack Be Little or the gargantuan Big Moon, require between 90 and 120 days from planting to harvest. Pumpkins are definitely an early-summer cropso if you havent already planted some by now, wait until mid-June next year to plant for a Halloween harvest.
With a little planning, a calendar and a calculator to determine the optimum planting time for your fall vegetable gardening, youll be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor throughout the year. Armed with this knowledge, go ahead and plan for year-round vegetable gardeningyour family and neighbors will be glad you did.
For more information about vegetable gardening, download the UGA publication Home Vege-table Gardening at www.ces.uga.edu/pubcd/l171-w.html and www.uga.edu/~hort/homeveg.htm.
Dont know when to harvest those veggies? Download When to Harvest Vegetables at http://www.ces.uga.edu/pubcd/L291-w.htm.